June 25, 2012 00:00
By James Eckardt
Special to The
A novel for teens follows a rich girl through a deluge of personal crises
By Patrick Maher
Published by Booksmango, 2012
Available at leading bookshops
Reviewed by James Eckardt
The Harry Potter, Narnia and Princess Diary series, the Hunger Games trilogy, the Twilight saga and a whole slew of similar books featuring pasty-faced teenage vampires – I have read none of them. They belong to a genre called Young Adult fiction, directed at kids from age 10 through high school. But I did read Patrick Maher’s “Pleng’s Song”. The subject is extremely topical: the recent Great Flood of Bangkok.
The heroine is Pleng Butiplanka. She is rich, 11 years old and attends Union of Hearts International School in Minburi. Like other rich kids she rarely sees her parents. She’s raised by the maid, who isn’t even given a name but who, at the first sign of the flood, skips out of the house with all the food.
Pleng is independent. She’s daring, devious, defiant and deceitful. She’s everything I want my own 11-year-old granddaughter Babe to be.
In the prologue Pleng details the worst day of her life in school. She was using her iPhone in class to track her tycoon father, who was meeting the prime minister that day. For this she is busted by her teacher and sent to the principal’s office. She’s so nervous that she vomits her breakfast onto the carpet. She writes in her diary that she hoped it left a stain that spelled her name in capital letters.
Of her general attitude, she writes: “I hated school, and not only did I think it was a joke, I thought school was a circus full of clowns and strange people who weren’t to be taken seriously.”
She returns home that day to find her mother’s head in a toilet bowl. Her mother is a drunk. Pleng bears this with indifference. Soon afterward, a beggar comes to the door: a crippled half-farang kid named Billy who’s collecting money for his children’s home. He lost his parents and leg to a car accident and now lives in the orphanage. From her mother’s purse Pleng filches Bt1,000 for him.
The next day her father tells her he’s socked her mother away in a hospital for a month. He gives her an ATM card and says he’s off to Chiang Mai on business. That afternoon there’s a birthday party for a goody-two-shoes kid named B-Boy. Out of pure devilment Pleng plants a tack on his chair. But instead of sitting on the tack, B-Boy kneels on it and screams in pain. Pleng informs the teacher in strict confidence than another girl, Zaza, did the deed. Zaza is suspended from school.
Pleng’s only sign of remorse? “I thought it was too bad that B-Boy hadn’t sat down on his butt like most normal people do.”
When the flood comes, Pleng is alone in the house without food. She goes to a Big C, only to discover her father squiring about a second family. He explains that he’s actually divorced from her mother, but kept the news from her. Pleng flees the house again and, as the rain falls, collapses in the back of a truck. When the truck flips off the road she nearly drowns. She emerges into “a vast landscape of water”.
For the second half of the novel, seeking dry land and food, she struggles alone through a series of horrific ordeals. For a while she’s stranded on a spit of land, surviving on snake meat and coconut milk.
Retrieving some newspapers, Pleng learns that she’s now famous because she was reported dead. She’s become “the flood girl”, “the girl who has captured Thailand’s heart”.
Now, along with some stylistic clumsiness, this is the great flaw in Maher’s novel. It is not enough to tell us that Pleng is famous, he has to show us why. In a disaster that took 600 lives and displaced millions, why is Pleng so important? Why does she later become a big star on TV?
It’s been a half-century since I was a Young Adult, so I passed “Pleng’s Song” on to my granddaughter Babe. She decided it was “awesome”.
“It was easy to read with not that many hard words. It was very well detailed and exciting. I like Pleng. She goes through many adventures during the flood. One thing I didn’t like was I didn’t get how she became famous just because she survived the flood.”
Out of the mouth of Babe.
On the whole, though, we both give “Pleng’s Song” two thumbs up. Through her suffering during the catastrophe, Pleng resolves to become a better person and to adopt the beggar Billy. But this is no fairytale, and the ending is bittersweet.